What’s behind the NRL’s raft of blowout scores – the widely-publicised set of rule changes that have fundamentally altered the way the game is played, or poor roster management and a broken salary cap system?
It’s the debate that’s raging across the competition and the rugby league community. And the NRL 360 experts didn’t pull any punches in a fired-up discussion that laid bare the complex problems facing the game.
From the game’s ‘great imbalance’, players who aren’t ‘NRL standard’ and a host of their peers being overpaid, to an ARLC lacking accountability, here’s what they said.
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Paul Kent declared: “I tend to go with Wayne Bennett: The problems are bigger than just the rules. The problems are the way the teams are assembling their rosters. Some of the players that are playing in the NRL are not NRL standard.
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“There seems to be this great imbalance where the good clubs are attractive. I’ve said this for years and years: there is a false salary cap out there. If you put every player at Melbourne on the market – their nine million dollar salary cap – they’ve got 11 million dollars worth of players.
“You put the Bulldogs on the market, their nine million dollar salary cap – you’d be flat out getting seven or six million for them.”
James Hooper replied: “If we’re talking about assembling rosters, the rules have played a huge element of that. Look at Jason Taumalolo on that 10 year, 10 million dollar deal. He was signed under a different set of rules to what it is now. Would he be worth the same amount of money given the changes that we’ve made?”
Kent added: “You look at other clubs and you wonder why there’s blowouts. Cronulla – two million dollars of their salary cap in second grade in Newtown. Fifita, Dugan, Townsend. You wonder why they can’t compete, or they’re doing extremely well to compete.
“It’s happening all over the competition.”
He continued: “There’s a lot of clubs that don’t know what they’re buying. They’re getting conned by managers.”
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And while his fellow panellists claimed that situation is nothing new, he replied: “I’ll tell you what is new: How easy it is now for players to sit there, a year into a three-year-deal, when suddenly something (a contract offer) opens up across the road at another club for more money.
“So they turn up at training for six weeks, kicking stones until the club goes: ‘You know what, we’ve got to let him go’.
“And what they’re doing is they’re basically poaching players – which is what the salary cap is intended not to do – they’re poaching players within their deals and they’re paying over!
“So many players are on overs, that’s why salary caps are out of whack. And that’s why there’s now no depth at clubs.”
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The Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield added: “There’s a really good example you can throw in here. A great, great, tough, tough forward: Dale Finucane. He’s on what at Melbourne, probably $650(k)? His contract’s up, he could probably get $950k, nearly a million at Wests Tigers. Do you think he’ll go there? [No, came the reply from his fellow panellists.]
“Why would he go there?”
Kent replied: “This is the problem with the competition. You said Dale Finucane’s on $650 (thousand) at Melbourne, Tigers have got to offer him $950k to even get him interested. That’s $300 (thousand) they’re absorbing in their cap that Melbourne don’t have to.”
Kent then offered another example, saying: “Nick Meaney is on good money at Canterbury. Canterbury came back and said we’ll offer you minimum wage – this is what we think you’re worth. It’s a downgrade in payment.
“At that price, Melbourne said: ‘You know what, if he’s on minimum wage, we’ll throw him a minimum wage contract.’ They threw him a minimum wage contract. So Nick Meaney had a choice – to play at Canterbury for minimum wage or play at Melbourne for minimum wage.
Of course he’s gone to Melbourne. He’s signed there.”
But Kent didn’t blame the competition heavyweights for that situation.
He said: “It’s not a criticism of Melbourne, they’ve earned the right to do that. The Roosters have done the same thing, Souths for a period were doing the same thing. The good clubs earn the right to sign players at a discounted rate because they players go there for less money to win.”
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But Rothfield said the salary cap problems, and discussion of toxic club cultures, helped avoid accountability within the rugby league hierarchy – and specifically the ARL Commission.
He said: “This is a convenient argument to take the spotlight off all the rule changes. If you ask around in clubland a lot of people are blaming the rule changes.”
He added: “I’ve said before that I don’t blame Peter V’landys. He’s the face of it all and he likes to take the rap for a lot of things that go on.
“I want to look at the commission. How do all these things get pushed through? Why has Wayne Pearce, who’s the rugby league expert on the commission, been there for 10 years? He’s pushed a lot of these rules, but he never ever gets the criticism for it.”